This week, Desiigner’s “Panda” became the first New York rap song to top the Billboard Hot 100 since Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” back in 2009. But the controversy surrounding the song’s so-called authenticity — whether or not the Brooklyn rapper is a talented prodigy or a shameless copycat — resembles an earlier debate surrounding an NYC-birthed crossover smash.
Back in 2007, Mims topped the Hot 100 with “This is Why I’m Hot.” He was subsequently derided as an imposter for brazenly lifting the Atlanta-bred snap music rhythm for his own ringtone anthem. To outraged experts of what was then termed “regional rap,” the Manhattan lyricist was a fraud who could barely mask his contempt for the South: “This is why I’m hot, I don’t gotta rap/I could sell a mill sayin’ nothing on the track.” (Never mind that he also rapped, “I love the Dirty Dirty ’cause niggas show me love.”)
Years later, Desiigner is being “unmasked” for his own tacit admission of guilt on “Panda.” “I’ve got broads in Atlanta,” he says. Of course, the 18-year-old kid born Sidney Selby III (he turns 19 in May) is from Brooklyn, New York. It’s unlikely he had “broads” in Atlanta when he uploaded “Panda” to streaming services last December, though he may likely have them now. The song’s success is almost entirely due to Kanye West, who found the track and gave Desiigner a G.O.O.D. Music deal. Most folks heard “Panda” for the first time when West remixed it, added his own Auto-Tuned vocals, and retitled it “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. II” for The Life of Pablo. When they heard Desiigner’s husky, nasally voice and Menace’s boilerplate trap beat, they easily mistook it for Future, arguably one of the most influential rappers of the decade. Of course, nearly half of the rappers in Atlanta right now sound like Future, too. But Desiigner lives more than 800 miles away.
The continuous and diaphanous streams of online culture should have exploded our notions that rap music is a purely regional product. Yet we continue to cling to outmoded ideas about authenticity, and the notion that the best rappers reflect their hometown’s struggles and aspirations through a distinctive, hard-to-duplicate voice. New York, which hasn’t had a readily identifiable sound since the heyday of G-Unit, Roc-a-Fella and Dipset, has earned particular criticism as the city’s rappers navigate a post-Internet environment where any inspiration can be heard and absorbed with the click of a mouse. “New York has a checkered history of capitalizing on the music of other regions of late,” opined Andrew Friedman at FACT while identifying Bobby Shmurda and French Montana as culprits.
This argument lies in the patently absurd yet distressingly widely held belief that we can “own” an idea, and any interloper who utilizes it, whether out of sheer love or to pay homage, is beneath contempt. DJ Mustard continues to earn flack for appropriating Oakland’s hyphy and “New Bay” style. Travis $cott is a “biter” for riffing on 808 Mafia’s keyboard avalanches and Kid Cudi’s emotional symphonies. Their real crime, it seems, is when they become just as financially successful as their influences. As the thinking goes, Future should be Number One on the pop charts, not Desiigner.
Internet culture can be a double-edged sword: It makes us think we’re all Google/Wikipedia/Genius androids who can source the provenance of any sound or lyric. But recent controversies should remind us that there’s much about the music industry we don’t know, whether it’s Meek Mill’s claims that Quentin Miller wrote much of Drake’s lyrics for If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, or Hudson Mohawke’s tweets that he, not Metro Boomin, produced the gospel loop at the center of The Life of Pablo’s “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1.” Tellingly, West hasn’t clarified any of the dozens of credits on his album, and has allowed his sundry collaborators to make victory-lap claims through “exclusive” interviews while we try to deduce who actually did what.
So what inspired Desiigner to make “Panda”? “Panda” is “the black X6 and the white X6. The black X6 look like a Phantom, the white X6 look like a panda,” he told Complex. In effect, “Panda” finds a teenage boy lusting over luxury vehicles and “broads.” God knows Future has made plenty of empty-calorie songs, too. (I won’t alarm the #FutureHive by naming his worst offenses.)
“Panda” is a momentary sugar rush that evaporates as soon as it ends. It’s the kind of song you’d never stream in the comfort of your home, but will blissfully lean and dab to when the DJ spins it at the club. It’s Number One on the charts, joining a rogues gallery that includes “This Is Why I’m Hot,” Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” and other shallow thrills that barely reflect the beautiful complexities of hip-hop culture. Don’t worry about it. Future has bigger cakes to bake.